The Mystery of the Last Supper is a book by Colin J. Humphreys, which seeks to explain the chronology of the Holy Week. I have read the book, and I found some SERIOUS problems with it. This post seeks to point out those problems and offer a solution.
Limited Praise for the Book
However, I can’t say that it is ALL bad. Colin J. Humphreys sees a problem, and he tries to solve it. I do this a lot in this blog, and I do not want to criticize the effort. There are some good things in this book.
For instance, the book incorporates the findings of Humphreys on the most likely date of the crucifixion, which is April 3, 33 AD. The reason this is most likely is that just as the Scriptures describe, there is a Passover on a Thursday during the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Pilate was governor of Judea. There are only two of those: Friday, April 3, 33 AD and Friday, April 7, 30AD.
However, the Friday April 3, 33AD date is more likely because there was a lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem on that date, which corresponds to Peter’s speech in Acts where he quotes Joel’s prophesy:
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
It was Colin J. Humphreys who published an article in Nature identifying this date and lunar eclipse (HUMPHREYS, C., WADDINGTON, W. Crucifixion date. Nature 348, 684 (1990)). It’s quite impressive work.
However, there are also some rather not so good things in the book. And I’m writing this because this isn’t just a random guy on a blog (me). This man’s name is SIR Colin J. Humphreys. He is the Professor and Director of Research at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the The Miracles of Exodus (2003). He’s no light-weight, but this book is light-weight, and it bothers me.
I think it’s causing confusion in a place where the text is quite clear. That’s why I write this critical review. But not wishing to only tear down, I also add a solution at the end.
Summary of the Book’s Contents
The core of Colin J. Humphreys’s book states that Jesus and his disciples were using an alternative lunar pre-exilic calendar instead of the traditional Jewish calendar to eat the Passover meal of the Last Supper (p. 160). If you don’t understand what that means, don’t worry about it. It’s not important. What is important to note is that by applying this alternative lunar pre-exilic calendar to Holy Week, Humphreys asserts that the Last Supper occurred on the Wednesday of Holy Week (p. 163). Humphreys likes this solution, because it solves the problem of the “contradiction” between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels on exactly WHEN Jesus had the last supper in relation to the crucifixion. (p. 166). Humphreys also believes that it is unlikely that the Jews would have had a trial of Jesus by night (p. 10), and instead claims that there were TWO trials before the Sanhedrin, and not one. (p. 185, and Chpt. 12, note 28). This causes Jesus to spend a night in prison (p. 186, 189). Humphreys also quite emphatically states that April 3, 33 AD, the most likely date of the crucifixion, was on Nisan 14, and not Nisan 15. (p. 79).
Using this background, Colin J. Humphreys creates an alternative chronology of Holy Week which is summarized in his second to last chapter:
- Wednesday, evening and night – the last supper
- Thursday, early hours – Arrest of Jesus
- Thursday about 3 a.m. until dawn – Interrogation by Annas and denials by Peter
- Thursday, starting at daybreak – Trial by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin
- Thursday – Jesus sentenced to death and handed over to the guards
- Thursday night – Jesus spends the night in prison
- Friday, daybreak – Sanhedrin meets to confirm the death sentence
- Friday, early morning – Trial by Pilate
I personally think this break-down of Holy Week is crazy, especially the idea that Jesus spent an entire night in prison, and we have literally zero information about it scripture other than the note that Jesus was “handed over to the guards,” even though this period is the most important set of events in cosmic history.
But yep, that’s the conclusion. Now let’s get on to the problems.
Problem Number 1 With “The Mystery of the Last Supper”
As the book title suggests, this book is written to solve a problem with the Last Supper. According to Humphreys, there is a problem because John states that the Passover had NOT occurred when Jesus had his trial before Pilate, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that the Passover HAD occurred when Jesus had his trial before Pilate. Humphreys describes the problem this way in Chapter 3:
“And he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples at the last supper], ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ . . . Then seizing him, they [the temple guard] led him away and took him to the house of the high priest [Caiaphas]. (Luke 22:15, 34)
Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. (John 18:28)
These passages from Luke and John strikingly illustrate the problem of the time and nature of the last supper. The verse from John seems to follow on from the verses from Luke, except that the Feast of Passover has been shifted from before the arrest and trials of Jesus to after these events. If Jesus had already eaten the Passover with his disciples before his arrest and trials (Luke, and also Matthew and Mark), how was it that the Jews were still waiting to eat the Passover after his arrest and trials (John)? This looks like a straight contradiction and, as I have written earlier, it has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. In this chapter we will examine some of the solutions that have been proposed. First, I want to explore in detail the apparent disagreement between the gospels about the last supper.
John appears to say that the last supper, the trials of Jesus and the crucifixion were all before the Passover meal. Concerning the last supper, John writes: ‘It was just before the Passover Feast . . . The evening meal was being served’ (John 13:1,2). This ‘evening meal is the last meal John records Jesus having before his crucifixion. The description John gives of events at this meal makes it clear that the meal is the same occasion as the last supper described in the synoptic gospels.
. . .
Matthew, Mark and Luke appear to tell a very different story from John. According to Mark 14:12, ‘On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”‘ The disciples then prepared the Passover meal (Mark 14:16) and that evening Jesus ate this last supper with his disciples (Mark 14:17-18). Matthew and Luke tell a similar story to Mark, and Luke records Jesus poignantly saying as he east the mean: ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:15). Notice that, according to the synoptics, both the disciples of Jesus and Jesus himself call the last supper the Passover.
However, the only problem that I can identify is that Colin J. Humphreys does not understand how first century Jews celebrated the Passover. This creates a fundamental problem for THE ENTIRE BOOK.
I’m not going to do any heavy lifting on why this is wrong. Instead, I’m just going to quote something that definitively shows why it is wrong.
HUMPHREYS DOES NOT NOTICE THAT THERE ARE TWO RELEVANT PASSOVER MEALS
This is what Josephus says about how first century Jews celebrated the Passover:
In the month of Xanthicus, which is by us called Nisan, and is the beginning of our year, on the fourteenth day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries, [for in this month it was that we were delivered from bondage under the Egyptians,] the law ordained that we should every year slay that sacrifice which I before told you we slew when we came out of Egypt, and which was called the Passover; and so we do celebrate this passover in companies, leaving nothing of what we sacrifice till the day following. The feast of unleavened bread succeeds that of the passover, and falls on the fifteenth day of the month, and continues seven days, wherein they feed on unleavened bread; on every one of which days two bulls are killed, and one ram, and seven lambs. Now these lambs are entirely burnt, besides the kid of the goats which is added to all the rest, for sins; for it is intended as a feast for the priest on every one of those days. But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month, they first partake of the fruits of the earth, for before that day they do not touch them. And while they suppose it proper to honor God, from whom they obtain this plentiful provision, in the first place, they offer the first-fruits of their barley, and that in the manner following: They take a handful of the ears, and dry them, then beat them small, and purge the barley from the bran; they then bring one tenth deal to the altar, to God; and, casting one handful of it upon the fire, they leave the rest for the use of the priest. And after this it is that they may publicly or privately reap their harvest. They also at this participation of the first-fruits of the earth, sacrifice a lamb, as a burnt-offering to God. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, Chapter 10, part 5)
Did you catch that guys? Let me spell it out for you, because if it fooled Colin J. Humphreys, maybe it will pass by you, too:
THERE ARE TWO PASSOVER MEALS. ONE IS IN EATEN IN SMALL GROUPS, AND THE OTHER IS A LARGE FEAST.
However, you don’t need to be any expert on ancient Jewish festivals or Josephus to understand this. Instead, you can pick it up from your bibles. Notice what the gospel of John records about the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. . . . So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. (John 13:14, 26-30)
This is an embarrassing omission. Colin J. Humphreys does not know how Jesus could be eating a Passover meal with his disciples (which, as Josephus explains, “so we do celebrate this Passover in companies”) while later, the Priests do not want to enter the house of Pilate so that “they could eat the Passover.”
He just doesn’t understand the Passover or the Priests. The Priests are not concerned about eating the meal that reminds them of how they were saved and brought out of Egypt. Instead, the Priests are concerned about “the Feast.”
This simple fact solves the entire problem that “The Mystery of the Last Supper” set out to explain. If he had noticed this, the entire book would be unnecessary.
Problem Number 2 With “The Mystery of the Last Supper”
This problem all comes down to his reconstruction of the Jewish calendar. Using a very complex and cutting-edge (for 1983) formula for finding the visibility of the crescent moon, Humphreys believes that April 3, 33 AD was on Nisan 14, not Nisan 15. Significantly, this is also the date of a lunar eclipse. We’ll get to that later.
What is significant is that the calculation of Nisan 1 is made (as Humphreys admits in this 1992 journal article), on the earliest POSSIBLE date on which the crescent moon could be visible, and it’s impossible to know when the crescent moon was ACTUALLY seen. Humphreys makes a valid note about the dry air of Israel, and the likelihood of seeing the crescent moon.
But this ignores something rather basic. You do not need to know the precise moment of the appearance of the crescent Moon to know the days of the month. This idea about the need to “document” the crescent Moon comes from someone (Humphreys) who apparently doesn’t look at the Moon very much.
Humphreys pays very close attention to the PRECISE moment when the crescent Moon first becomes visible. What Humphreys ignores is the Moon in the sky on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. day of the month. What he ignores is that even when the the visibility of the crescent Moon is blocked by clouds, rain, weather, or dust, you can STILL find what day of the month it is on a lunar calendar by simply looking at the Moon at any other time of the month:
Additionally, not only does the shape of the moon change, but also it’s position in the sky. The first crescent Moon is visible right at sundown in the West. But as the moon grows to a first quarter (8th day), it appears further and further to the East. When the Moon is full (15th day), the Moon rises over the Eastern horizon at precisely the moment the sun sets at the Western horizon. It’s quite simple when you notice it.
Additionally, about these dates above, it should be noted that the time it takes the moon to go through its phases is actually about 29.5 days. This is why the Jewish calendar today alternates between 29 day months and 30 day months. We should also note that because the moon and the earth orbit in an ellipse, this timing can slightly adjust. In short… …it’s complicated.
However, for telling the date from the Moon, this is rather simple. People who have been telling the date from the phases of the Moon for their entire lives could have always looked up and known what day of the month it is, regardless of whether they see the first crescent moon on the first day of the month.
One of the biggest supports for the idea that April 3, 33 AD was on Nisan 14 (not Nisan 15) is Humphreys’s assertion that the “official” Jewish calendar states that Friday, April 3, 33AD was on Nisan 14. But here is the big problem with that:
THIS “OFFICIAL” JEWISH CALENDAR IS NOT “OFFICIAL” AT ALL. IT IS HUMPHREY’S RECONSTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH CALENDAR.
This reconstruction of the Jewish calendar is based on the first POSSIBLE visibility of the first crescent moon, as calculated by Humphreys and Waddington, is what he calls “official.” (p. 111) (For the background of this calculation, see the article he cites: Colin J. Humphreys and W.G. Waddington, ‘Astronomy and the Date of the Crucifixion’, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, ed. J. Vardaman and E.M. Yamauchi (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989), pp. 165-81)). Amazingly, Humphreys even acknowledges that most astronomical reconstructions of the Jewish calendar determine that April 3, 33 AD is Nisan 15, and not Nisan 14. (p. 52-53) However, he dismisses these reservations based on the accuracy of his calculations of the first crescent moon.
That’s a pretty strong academic flex, if you ask me. If you’re going to flex that much, it is important that you don’t miss any relevant details, like… …you know, two relevant Passover meals. But anyway, moving on.
It is worth noting that calendars are COMPLICATED, and a calendar that has one leap day every four years (the Julian Calendar made official in Rome at 46 BC) will DRIFT over several centuries. There is a very good internet video explaining this, which you can watch using this link. For this reason, Humphreys’s idea that the Sanhedrin needed to rule to assign the “official” start of months very well may be correct. But what Humphreys misses is that this function would only be necessary every few centuries, while Humphreys assumes in his book that this happens once every month.
What Humphreys fails to address AT ALL in his book is that the average Jew who doesn’t have access to this “official and monthly Sanhedrin calendar ruling” on the first sighting of the Moon, DIDN’T NEED to know exactly when the first crescent Moon appeared.
ALL YOU HAVE TO DO TO KNOW THE DATE IN A LUNAR CALENDAR IS TO LOOK UP.
For this reason, Humphrey’s insistence on the date of the crucifixion on “Nisan 14” and not “Nisan 15” has serious problems. Even in our internet age, imagine how burdensome it would be to check an email update about when a month begins. Think of how much MORE burdensome it would be before the internet age, the telegraph age, or even the modern postal system.
The most significant problem, however, is discussed next.
Problem Number 3 With “The Mystery of the Last Supper”
Colin Humphreys believes, that April 3, 33 AD was the date of the crucifixion, just as I do. He believes that the lunar eclipse seen at sunset on this date is significant evidence of this date, just as I do. No argument there.
However, he also believes that this date was the 14th day of Nisan instead of the 15th day of Nisan, which I take to be physically impossible. His belief that April 3, 33AD was “Nisan 14” is based on his “official” calculation.
As we explained above, you DON’T NEED an accurate view of the first crescent Moon to tell you when the first day of the lunar month occurs. Instead, you can notice when the moon is at its first quarter, and know that it is the 8th. It is not only the PHASE of the moon that tells you what day it is, but also its position in the sky. At sunset throughout the month, the Moon moves further and further east between its first crescent and full moon, eventually coming up over the horizon precisely when the Sun falls beneath the horizon when the Moon is full.
But here’s the thing. It is only possible for there to be a lunar eclipse when the Moon is COMPLETELY FULL.
And guess what? In a Lunar Calendar, like the Jewish calendar, the Moon is ALWAYS full on the 15th of the month. Now, since the Moon moves throughout the course of the Lunar month, it is a good question about whether the precise time that the Moon reaches that “completely full” position occurs precisely on the 14th or the 15th, especially when the date changes at sundown in the Jewish calendar, rather than midnight. Additionally, it may be possible for an average person on an ordinary Nisan 14 looking up at the sky to have trouble determining the difference between the 14th and 15th day of the month.
However, the fact that there was a Lunar Eclipse on April 3, 33 AD shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a Full Moon, which MUST be on Nisan 15. Why is it beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Lunar Eclipse of April 3, 33 AD occurred on Nisan 15? Because the eclipsed Moon is in the shadow of the Earth. As such, Lunar eclipses ONLY HAPPEN when the Moon is COMPLETELY FULL, which only happens on Nisan 15.
The Moon is not “completely full” on Nisan 14, when Humphreys claims the lunar eclipse of April 3, 33 AD happened. As such, his reconstruction of the first-century Jewish calendar is bunk. He claims to have found the “official” Jewish calendar, but he’s wrong. There was an official calendar for the Jews in the first century, but it is not what Humphreys identifies.
THE OFFICIAL CALENDAR WAS THE MOON
It’s that simple. Humphreys is wrong.
Problem Number 4 with The Mystery of the Last Supper
We have already shown that Colin J. Humphreys completely reconstructs the chronology of Holy Week to correct a “contradiction” that does not exist. However, now we need to address something else that he does, which is to make grand conclusions based on things that he thinks are “unlikely.”
The most glaring of these problems was in the following paragraph:
“In order to try to fit in all the events between the last supper on Thursday evening/night and the crucifixion at about 9 a.m. the following morning, scholars are agreed that the main trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin must have been at night. However, the Jewish rules regarding trials for capital cases do not allow this. They are stated in the Mishnah (a compendium containing regulations attributed to about 150 rabbis who lived from about 50 BC to about AD 200): ‘In capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict must be reached during the daytime . . . In capital cases a verdict of acquittal may be reached the same day, but a verdict of conviction not until the following day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.1)
If these rules, written down in about 200 AD but based on earlier practice, applied at the time of the trials of Jesus, then they present a major challenge to the conventional understanding of these trials. As Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus at Oxford University states: ‘It is hard to imagine in a Jewish setting of the first century AD that a capital case would be tried at night.'” (Humphreys, Mystery of the Last Supper 10).
Really? Are we citing legal formalities that “should have been followed” in the trial and execution of Jesus to determine what happened?
It is also hard to imagine in a Jewish setting of the first century AD that the High Priests would both conspire and act to murder their own king and God, pledging their allegiance to Caesar of the occupying Roman Empire to make it happen. More than “unlikely,” it is downright scandalous. But that’s precisely what happened.
So why is Humphreys upset about a trial at night? It sure beats me.
There are problems like this all throughout the book, but that one was the biggest bee in my bonnet on this point.
A Simple Chronology of The Last Supper and Crucifixion
That being said, it’s not like there are NO problems or confusions with Holy Week. As I showed in my previous post, the issue of “three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth” is a chronological problem, but it is solved by understanding the “heart of the Earth” to be Satan himself. Here’s a link to that post if you want more info on that.
As Colin Humphrey’s also notes, there is confusion because of how the Jews counted (and still count) when the day begins and ends. For the Jews, the day BEGINS AND ENDS when the Sun goes down, where we make our days begin and end at midnight. For this reason, we can notice that the Last Supper was on “Thursday evening of April 2.” However, for the Jews, this same event would have occurred on “the sixth day, Nisan 15.”
Understanding this, I have created the following timeline of Passion week. Along with my previous post on how Passion Week corresponds to the Exodus, I have matched up what was happening when at the time of these events. It’s quite amazing.
If you’d like to marvel at my Microsoft Pain skills, or just get a link to the larger picture so you can read it, feel free to click here to get a bigger picture.
And that is why I do not think you should be reading The Mystery of the Last Supper. There are some good things in it, but you can find those things just by reading the Bible. As for the rest, it is just confusing. Go read Josephus if you want some real background.